Why you should care
Because you should love yourself. Not some random wedding guest.
Nashwa Khan is a writer living in Toronto.
I was tired — tired of explaining why I was tan, although it was very obviously summer. Tired of explaining my weight, tired of responding, “Yeah, my mom and sister are so pretty, they are fair-skinned, thank you for letting me know” — words that clawed their way up my throat and out of my mouth.
As I entered the mosque for the religious portion of my cousin’s wedding in Toronto, I was overwhelmed by the eclectic mix of outfits — some gaudy, some chic — all bedazzled with intricate lace and gauzy silks and pressed chiffons, made from fabric sent from the “homeland.” A Pakistan I’ve lost and no longer know. A place I am constantly reminded of when people prod, “But where are you really from?” when I say “Canada.”
Being ostracized by white people did not make them hate white people. They idolized them.
I was tired of dressing in regalia like saris and shalwar kameez for weddings, feeling like a pony at a show, where women and girls are coveted and placed on a platform, like trophies that have been dusted and shined. Except my family’s trophy case never features me — only our prettiest girls. The girls who don’t feel awkward in the heavy fabrics, the girls who always left enough food on their plates to appear dainty and docile.
This wedding was like all the rest, until suddenly, a blond, blue-eyed woman with hair peeking through a makeshift hijab breezed in. I watched as everyone went stiff, expressions frozen. This blond woman, she is a unicorn, so rare and unironically foreign. It was like Carrie Mathison had descended on our mosque from season four of Homeland, a Khaleesi in a mosque full of brown bodies with dark hair. I could feel the intimidation and envy, the air laced with longing.
My family has always struggled with talking to white people. My family members, who immigrated young and stayed isolated within their communities, felt only self-hatred and embarrassment. They were bullied because of their accents, clothing, skin tone and non-Eurocentric features, like their wide noses and thick eyebrows. Still, being ostracized by white people did not make them hate white people. They idolized them.
Today, skin bleaching is an accepted form of self-mutilation. As a child, I scrubbed hard in the shower.
I am more articulate around white beauty. Perhaps because I keep finding ways to distance myself from my Pakistani identity, surrounding myself with white peers when snubbed by brown ones. And so I struck up a conversation with the unicorn, offering her almonds, welcoming the non-Muslim to the mosque. Since September 11, I feel a kind of gratitude toward non-Muslims who enter a mosque, a kind of impulsive obligation to be extra-kind.
She said she was married to a friend of my cousin, and seemed completely unaware of the envy around her. Eventually, my youngest aunt mustered up the courage to approach us, fixated on this white woman. More aunties gathered around, turning their backs to their family members and turning their attention toward this guest. They cooed over her as if she were a newborn baby, telling her how gorgeous she was. My aunt, overwhelmed, forgot to introduce herself and whisked the white woman away, parading her around the room. She never even asked her name.
South Asians with faces like mine grew up under violent British occupation that ravaged the land and brainwashed the people into thinking they were worthless if they were not white. Today, it’s manifested in a culture where skin bleaching is an accepted form of self-mutilation. As a child, I scrubbed hard in the shower.
The evening continued. The white woman smiled at the aunties and the aunties smiled back at her, ignoring their friends and family, who had spent hours applying makeup, hours trying to look pretty. As we sat down to dinner, the white woman discarded her scarf. I swear, all eyes were on her. It was as if she’d become the bride.
Somehow, this peripheral guest — the wife of the friend of my cousin — ended up in the center of our family photo that night. I was relegated to the margins, vying to be in view of the camera lens. Even in our own communities, the white women always win.